Slavery, Reparations and Common Sense

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This piece was written by Rob Teir and send on to us for publication

The occasional talk about slavery reparations, I think, is very worthwhile. Not because of the merits of the idea, which are stunningly little, but because the thinking such a debate can elicit reveals some important truths of which we can all stand some reminding.

The discussion should start with the obvious: slavery was an abomination. It was cruel, and it was a gross infringement upon liberty. Furthermore, the way that it was practiced, with legal and other restrictions on marriage, education, social activities, and even the religious practices of slaves, made the abhorrent institution even worse. The immortality of slavery is worsened still by the fact that it was going strong in the American South when so much of the civilized world had ethically moved on and rejected slavery as an acceptable practice. Sadly, the United States was one of the last outposts of civilization where slavery was practiced, defended, and protected by law. Indeed, the support of slavery was so great as late as the 1860s that it motivated the plantation class of the South to succeed and
fight a civil war.

The fact that slavery was wrong, while undeniable, gets one nowhere in the debate over reparations. I say this for two reasons: because it is an offense for which there is no monetary compensation, and because today's African-Americans are not worse off because of slavery.

The cruelty of slavery is a gross historical wrong, akin to genocides and other violations of human rights. It is also analogous to other government-sponsored systems and economic policies that also impose restraints on liberty. We can learn valuable moral lessons from this history, as we can from the Holocaust, the slaughter of Armenians, Apartheid, the treatment of white farmers in Zimbabwe, the killing fields of Cambodia, and other offenses against humanity.

What can money add to this? It cannot free the enslaved of two centuries ago. It cannot make right what was heinously wrong. It cannot alter basic principles of liberty. A payment, large or small, to people living in the 21st century cannot even assure that such atrocities do not reoccur.

I hear some advocates of reparations cite the payments made by the German government after World War II as a precedent for what they seek. The precedent is misplaced. The reparations negotiated by Konrad Adenhauer and David Ben Gurion in the 1950s were focused not on righting a wrong, which both men and both governments would have acknowledged as impossible, but on compensating property owners and their heirs for physical property taken from them during and before World War II. People whose property is taken by a government should be compensated. And, if the property owner is deceased, it is logical and just to compensate the person's heirs. That is what happened with German reparations of the 1950s. Paying them, moreover, changed nothing regarding the question of individual or national guilt or, for that matter, Jews' willingness to forgive.

The second type of 'reparations' in the news resulting from the German atrocities of the 1940s is payments made on contractual obligations, such as life insurance policies and bank deposits. These funds were legally due their beneficiaries, even under Nazi-era German law. The payments, therefore, were not because of a moral wrong, but a legally-binding promise.

With American slavery, while similarly cruel, these concrete obligations are not present. Slave descendents are not pointing to property that they or their ancestors lost. No slave owners promised slaves any sum of money that is now past due.

Perhaps more importantly, reparations are paid to people who are worse off because of a particular activity. In the case of slavery, modern-day African-Americans are BETTER off.

How can that be?

Blacks immigrated in mass numbers to the United States from Africa, albeit involuntarily, because of slavery. The immigration has been uniformly a good thing for all living African-Americans. While it is true that African-Americans have borne the brunt of racism and discrimination, it is tough to imagine any Black person in America today who is worse off because his or her ancestors did not remain in Africa. Today, there is no African country with the quality of life, educational opportunities, cultural opportunities, economic possibilities, or the political, religious, and other freedoms that Americans enjoy. People living in the Black parts of Africa today, on the other hand, face the constant scourges of shortages, violence, wars, and lack of economic and political freedoms that Americans of any race never experience even in their worse nightmares.

Africa, 150 years after the elimination of slavery, has produced only one politically free country, and only a handful providing even some ray of economic opportunity. The benefits of living in America, as opposed to Africa, is confirmed by the daily choice of tens of millions of Blacks to remain in this country, when freedom provides them the option to move to the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, or other African nations. Because a person is per se better off here than there, reparations are not justified.

This is only the beginning of the problem of reparations. They would also bring about two serious moral hazards. First, they impose collective blame, collective guilt, and collective responsibility, none of which are justified. Every non-Black person, whether they arrived in the United States yesterday, whether their great-grandparents got here at the turn of the last century, or whether their ancestors fought to liberate slaves in the Civil War, would be found guilty and have liability imposed upon them. Such collective liability bears no relationship to people's actions and culpability, and would therefore itself be a moral wrong.

The other moral hazard is that reparations give the dangerous message that the current problems facing African-American communities are somehow due to the economic systems of the 1790s or 1850s. That belittles the freedoms and decision-making capacities, as well as the opportunities, of Blacks today. While there were certainly times in our history where the economic choices of Blacks were limited by society or the government, today such limitations are somewhere between minimal and non-existent. The crime rates in Black neighbourhoods, the dropout rates, the rates of teenage pregnancies, and the high number of pregnancies without a financially relevant father are no more due to 19th century slavery than they are due to the position of the Moon.

Slavery reparations, in sum, turn concepts of individual responsibility upon their head, and are an example of victimhood run amok. Stripped of logical argument, what the pursuit of reparations comes down to is a quest for a large handout of money and a claim of blamelessness for one's own condition in life. The former is understandable, but not justified. The latter is not justified, distracts us from real problems, augments race-consciousness
hysteria, and, simply, is shameful.

Contributed by Ashley

30.01.03 Front Page

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